Mark Lunsford may abandon plans to sue the Citrus County Sheriff's Office over its investigation into the 2005 abduction and murder of his 9-year-old daughter. A tentative mediation strategy, brokered by attorneys for Lunsford and shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem, was announced on Clem's Thursday morning radio show.
The news hit Clem's audience like a bombshell. Since Lunsford served the Sheriff's Office with an intent-to-sue letter in February - saying the agency's negligence "directly and indirectly led to the death of Jessica Lunsford" - Clem, his on-air cohorts and his fans have harshly criticized the Homosassa man.
Under this tentative cease-fire, attorneys for Clem, Lunsford and Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy would discuss a framework for talks between the sheriff, the father and other experts - with no lawyers in the room.
Lunsford wants Sheriff Dawsy to admit that mistakes were made - by whom, he hasn't said - in the search for his daughter. And he wants to work with the department on procedural changes in future investigations.
"They're going to iron out an understanding where all sides release each other, the notice (to sue) is withdrawn ... with the understanding that Sheriff Dawsy has agreed to sit down ... and go over Jessica Lunsford's case with a critical eye," said Stephen Diaco, an attorney for Clem, during the morning show on WHPT-102.5 FM The Bone.
There may still be bumps to overcome. If Lunsford doesn't get the admission he wants, the suit will go forward, said his attorney, Eric Block.
Clem's attorney said he talked last week with sheriff's counsel Richard Wesch. But a sheriff's spokeswoman said Wesch was out of the country and had not agreed to any meeting.
Still, Clem's attorney remained confident an agreement would be reached allowing Lunsford and Dawsy to discuss the case with representatives from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
As part of the plan, Clem agreed to stop insulting Lunsford on air. "I was told, Bubba shuts up about Mark and the lawsuit gets dropped," said Clem. As a friend of Dawsy's, Clem worried that Lunsford's insistence on an admission of wrongdoing could ruin the deal. "I don't want it to look like I cried wolf."
Lunsford did not join his attorney at the Tampa studio Thursday, where the group faced a host of local reporters.
The truce seemed in danger of dissolving on air, as Lunsford's attorney challenged some statements Clem and his fans have made about his client, including claims that he was at a bar drinking on the night convicted sex offender John Couey kidnapped Jessica - an allegation Lunsford's attorneys have denied.
Lunsford's attorney said he has hired noted pathologist Michael Baden, who appeared on HBO's series Autopsy, in an effort to prove that Jessica was alive for days after Couey kidnapped her - indicating that a comprehensive police search might have discovered her.
Diaco expressed hope that, by focusing on improving procedures for future cases, all sides could overcome their differences. He hoped the attorneys might work out details for a settlement in a couple of weeks
"Bubba and Mark and all parties have cooled off and de-escalated the situation," he said. "Our objective here is to protect the children, and we're going to focus on that."
Eric Deggans can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8521. Visit his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.